Officer Effectiveness

“I don’t think any of us claim to be great generals, in the strict sense of the term, or to have initiated anything new, but merely to have met an emergency forced on us, and to have ceased war at the very moment it could be done”

William T. Sherman to Edward Hanky – May 10, 1867


Confederate officers, at least in the Virginia theater, probably did better than the Union officers during the first couple years of the war. The regular army was kept together by Winfield Scott in 1861 rather than spread amongst the volunteer troops. Many of the professional soldiers could have been used to provide drill instructors or tactical leadership to the volunteer troops but were not spread amongst them. Contrast this with the Confederate army that did not have a regular army going into the war. The officers who resigned from the U.S. army to join the Confederacy contributed immensely to the development of southern armies. The South’s seven military schools provided a large number of graduates that provided the South with a solid base of trained officers ready to be put to work at the start of the war.

“Political general” became almost synonymous with incompetency, especially in the North. Politically appointed officers still needed to meet the personal standards of the citizen soldiers that they were leading. Failure to uphold their duty as officers often led to losing credibility with their soldiers who in turn, lost motivation to maintain proper army discipline. Leading by example played a role in whether soldiers believed that maintaining a standard of discipline was necessary.

The state of discipline in Civil War armies was often democratic in nature. In 1864, the inspector general of the Army of Northern Virginia complained of “the difficulty of having orders properly and promptly executed. There is no respect for and obedience to general orders which should pervade a military organization.”

Many officers did little to earn the respect of their soldiers. Penchants for drinking and carousing by some officers set a great example for those under their command. Many of those with less than inspiring qualities were removed from their positions through resignation or by military boards. The best officers took their positions seriously, spending hours studying manuals on drills and tactics, avoiding giving dumb and unreasonable orders, leading by example and leading from the front rather than the rear. The few officers with the ability to lead their troops, empathize and share their soldiers’ hardships and concerns earned the respect and admiration of their men.

The proportion of officers in both armies who were killed in battle was 15% greater than the proportion enlisted men killed. Generals’ chances of being killed in battle were 50% greater than that of privates, resulting in the highest combat casualties.

Political leadership and public opinion contributed to the formation of strategy as the war was first a war of peoples rather than of professional armies.

Former civilians that became officers used West Point-educated officers as an example to follow but were often unsuccessful in their results. Civilian officers who failed to lead were often worse in the eyes of citizen soldiers than West Pointers because they not only failed at their duty as officer but also violated their citizen-soldier spirit.

“Soldiers that demonstrated such dedication to their cause tended to favor the promotion of discipline in the ranks, and officers who tried to motivate their soldiers to behave to the highest possible standards received the appreciation instead of the scorn of their determined men.” – Baring the Iron Hand (pg. 49)

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